LiT Speaker Profile on Richard Askam: Adaptation - How Digital Print Redefined a Drink Business

Richard Askam will be presenting at the LiT Summit on 28th June in Cambridge. The theme of leadership, technology and entrepreneurship aligns perfectly both with Richard’s story and his experience and vision for personalisation for digital printing. In this blog we talk about how he adapted his business and his view on the challenges and opportunities for digital printing.

What is your background Richard?

I started life in the drinks business. My family ran wine merchants and I joined at a time when the industry was beginning to change as wine became more popular.

So you evolved a traditional business model?

I guess you look back and see how you have done it, but at the time it just feels like your trying to survive. The wine needed selling! What was clear was that the value was in the knowledge, not in the product itself. It was only when the knowledge wasn’t required then the profit in the business began to drop.

How did the knowledge decrease in importance?

Once consumers became more informed, then the value was no longer there. I learned the ‘ins and outs’ of what makes wine and yes this is still useful. In the 1980’s and 90’s wine was a luxury product– then in the 1990’s wine really grew. It was the supermarkets that grew the business to the masses which on the one hand was great but this led it to become commoditised. For a number of years, there is no competition for people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Then supermarkets bought the knowledge in house and it became commoditised. In your average bottle of wine now, when you take off the production the amount out of that £6 when you have removed the fixed costs, what is left out of that £6 is 40p – so for the merchant, there is very little profit.

So you saw the writing on the wall?

Yes, we saw the need to change. So I began looking at the corporate gift market which is more of a B2B market. These buyers come to you with a budget as opposed to an idea so it was the perfect forum to try things out as the budget constraints are less. If you are prepared to invest in gifts with a reasonable budget, it allowed me the latitude to find the next thing. So in the course of doing this, I decided to not return to retail and we were able to add value through personalisation and got into the gift business which was focused on wine. The joy of this was that I was able to revert back to our knowledge and the wine – there are many gift businesses that sell wine but do not have the knowledge – this is what made us different, our knowledge and we were able to survive and then thrive by changing the model.

So, were you tempted to embrace a raft of other drinks?

I was keen to keep the focus on our core value proposition in line with our knowledge base. But we did develop into offering booze, flowers, chocs and cards. We managed to do this by bringing in partners who allowed me to develop this and then I began focusing on the personalisation. It was about the time Moonpig started and I was working on the corporate gifts incentives and rewards.

How did you get into digital personalisation?

I found a partner who did digital print. They had the technical know-how – we started with personalised labels, then printing onto boxes and even engraving boxes, if you can add more value to gift boxes or whatever the client wanted. Then you realise you can do glasses and spirits it was almost a case of ‘what can we do with it’? It was almost like R&D. You don’t get the limitations that analogue gives you. You can try things out, fail quickly, adapt and move on.

What prevents companies from trying out digital in your opinion?

Largely, companies are fearful of competing with their cash cow. Their cultures resist it because they don’t want to disrupt and reduce their own success. Analogue cultures still dominate out there. For instance, you can’t convince a coal miner not to go underground! I think we will look back at this time and the early pioneers will be the rocket scientists. It will be the next generation who will really exploit it. The fear of what might happen and this is evolution I guess. It can be slow.

So you left the business in 2015, what do you do now?

In January 2015 I took the decision to go solo. My business was effectively a third party. We used new technology but we didn’t print ourselves whilst doing the packing and distributing. We were the portal for the 2014 Coke campaign as I wanted to be closer to the creativity end of the process. Now I focus on public speaking, writing and consulting and as I created the online campaign that ran across personalised Coke bottles in 14 countries – this really helped raise the profile of digital and also my expertise due to my role in it.

My business plan was always about the knowledge. It is not about giving my ideas away – this experience and knowledge you either leverage or you don’t. I actually enjoy public speaking and to get paid for it is obviously a huge bonus. I don’t always work in an office, I work wherever the coffee and Wi-Fi is strong.

I used to have 100 employees whom I was responsible for, and now I just focus on what I love doing.

What would you say to those who refuse to consider adopting digital?

Resistance is futile. At what point do you accept that? You know when you try something new and say to yourself why didn’t I do it 6 months ago? You realise that it is really not that scary or risky.

I find this intransigence frustrating. I was preconditioned to being self-employed straight away to recreate opportunities. I am still doing the same thing I am just not producing the product.

Analogue producers also need to realise that personalisation has given brands the way to understand consumers directly. This changes the retail dynamic = this is not just how to put your name on a product – the other 99% of digital’s potential starts to get really interesting.

The insight this brings is almost as high in the value that the marketing creates. A direct consumer campaign and the data you get from your customers for the online naming is hugely useful.

I just hope that more consider joining this digital revolution as the power has huge potential and we are only scratching the surface. It really is not as scary as you may think.

Richard will be speaking at LiT in Cambridge on 28th June

For more information on Richard check out his website